State of the Habs, Part 4 – Games 13-16: Perfection

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Eller and Galchenyuk combined with Prust for the game winner vs. the Rangers (PHOTO: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)

State of the Habs is a 12-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs’ season into 4-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.

See Previous Segments:
Part 1 (Games 1-4: 3-1-0, “The Boys are Back in Town”)
Part 2 (Games 5-8: 3-1-0, “Rinse and Repeat”)
Part 3 (Games 9-12: 1-2-1, “The Plot Thickens”)

Overview – 4 Game Segment 4/12

Season Last Four Games
Record 11-4-1 4-0-0
Goal Differential +11 +9
Leading Scorer Plekanec (8-5-13) Pacioretty (2-3-5)
Hot (L4 GP) Galchenyuk (1-2-3)
Cold (L4 GP) Markov (0-0-0)

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – The Canadiens had a tall order for this, the fourth four-game set of their 2013 campaign. The team was coming off its first “slump” of the season, having gone 1-2-1 over the previous segment including the 6-0 dredging by the Toronto Maple Leafs and the only win coming in a shootout after blowing a late three-goal lead. To make matters worse, the next stretch began with the second half of the always-challenging Florida road trip, so there was reason to believe a strong start might soon be erased as doubt and flashes of last season crept into the collective minds of Hab fans.

But where a team with less character, determination, and leadership might have crumbled under pressure, the Habs rose to the challenge, rattling off a perfect 4-0-0 record, while dominating in goal differential by outscoring the opposition 11-2. It started with a win over the Florida Panthers, a tight game in part due to a brilliant effort from former Montreal Canadien Hart Trophy Winner Jose Theodore eventually ended by Alex Galchenyuk‘s out-muscling of Dmitri Kulikov and feeding of Rene Bourque for an overtime winner. More convincing was a win over the Philadelphia Flyers, especially given the last minute need to start Peter Budaj – who had been shaky previously this season – due to Carey Price being hospitalized with a flu. Despite losing a player who had become an important cog in the machine in Brendan Gallagher in that last game, the team rolled on with a 3-0 victory over Carolina – a first shutout this season for Budaj after Price had picked up his against the Panthers. And finally, in a game that John Tortorella would describe as “one of the worst he’s been involved in,” the Habs put in a textbook road performance, employing a strong forecheck and backcheck to shut down the disappointing New York Rangers by a 3-1 score.

Where has this surge left Montreal as they hit the one-third mark of the shortened season? See for yourself and enjoy it while it lasts (via NHL.com):

standings13

Surpassing Expectations

It would be easy to dump virtually the entire squad into this category, but there are a few standouts worth calling attention to.

Alex Galchenyuk lost his “Gally” nickname to fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher, instead being stuck by teammates with the moniker “Chucky.” Over the past four games, “Clutchy” would be a far more appropriate way of describing last June’s third overall selection, as he collected primary assists on game winners by Rene Bourque (Florida) and Brandon Prust (Carolina) before finally scoring the winning tally himself against the Rangers. While he is unlikely to spend his full career with a bodyguard on his line, Galchenyuk has worked well with Prust who serves as both protection and a veteran responsible two-way player there to cover for any mistakes. The other winger has rotated, but whether it be Brendan GallagherErik Cole, or most recently Lars Eller, it hasn’t stopped Galchenyuk’s deft precision passing from being on display regularly.

Speaking of Brendan Gallagher, the feisty diminutive winger had quickly become a core piece of Montreal’s offense, sitting tied for second on the team with five goals. His fifth came against the Flyers, a night where he also registered an assist, but he was unable to finish the game following a heavy hit by defenseman Luke Schenn. Post-game, Michel Therrien revealed that he had suffered a concussion, the second of his young and promising career, and that he’d sit out until he was back at 100%. Even as a fresh 20-year old rookie, Gallagher’s absence is felt by the team, as he has outplayed a veteran like Erik Cole in the early going. His previous concussion – suffered while playing for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants – kept him out for two weeks, so there is hope he’ll be a quick healer.

Eller and Galchenyuk combined with Prust for the game winner vs. the Rangers (PHOTO: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)
Eller and Galchenyuk combined with Prust for the game winner vs. the Rangers (PHOTO: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)

The other youngster up front, Lars Eller, is deserving of attention in his own right for a second segment in a row. Injuries opened the door for Eller – who has had to fight hard to earn every opportunity he’s gotten this season – to move back up off the fourth line, though he had found ways to produce at times even while playing there. After being tried on David Desharnais‘s wing, Eller has looked most comfortable playing with Alex Galchenyuk, taking face-offs before allowing Galchenyuk to resume his centre duties during game action. The two highly skilled forwards have shown flashes of chemistry, apparent on the winning goals in each of the past two games. Eller’s 7 points in 14 games would put him on pace to hit the 40-mark in a full 82-game season, which would be a breakout compared to his previous career high of 28.

On the blueline, more and more observers have been taking note of the play of Raphael Diaz as the season has progressed. His development seems to be following the curve of countryman Mark Streit, shifting from a skilled offensive blueliner to a more all-around solid contributor. While not physical or benefiting from an imposing physique, Diaz plays a smart positional game that has seen the number of errors he commits decline drastically from a year ago. With his empty net insurance goal against the Rangers, he sits second on the team with 12 points in 16 games, and is thus a big part of Montreal’s NHL-leading 39 points from the back end.

Of course it would be another injury that spurred Wolverine – I mean Max Pacioretty – to snapping his goalless start to the season. Pacioretty led all Habs with 5 points over this four game stretch and after erasing the zero from his goal column with a lucky bouncing clear that beat Cam Ward against the Hurricanes, scored a more conventional one on Henrik Lundqvist giving him markers in consecutive games. Some of the chemistry between him and David Desharnais seems to be returning, and based on the way he shuffles lines, Therriens seems determined to get the pair to work with Erik Cole like they did last year

Peter Budaj did not look good in his first few appearances this season, but thanks in part to better defensive efforts from the skaters in front of him, he put up two solid performances when pressed into service due to Carey Price‘s illness. The goaltenders were a story for Montreal for the first time this season, posting a shutout and a 1-goal-allowed effort each. Price was notably strong against New York, bouncing back from the flu to seem at the top of his game, displaying confident rebound control all night despite not being overly tried or tested by a lackadaisical Ranger offense.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning Ryan White in this category, as the pugilist was permitted to re-enter the line-up following Gallagher’s injury, and has shown signs of finally understanding his coach’s lessons. After a rather uneventful night against the Hurricanes, White played a tough defensive game against the Rangers, earning his coach’s trust in his responsible and hard-working style – enough to be sent out to kill a penalty on a defensive zone face-off in the game’s final two minutes. White repaid Therrien’s gamble with a face-off win, a won battle to force a puck out at the blueline, and then good positioning that created the turnover allowing Diaz’s empty netter.

 

The Letdowns

Has it been long enough to conclude that Erik Cole isn’t experiencing a slow start, but rather an off-year? In a full season, he’d still have 66 games to get on track, but this year we’re at the one-third mark already which means just 32 contests to be played. Just two goals and four points in sixteen games isn’t where anyone thought Cole would be by this stage, and he has yet to resume taking pucks to the net with reckless abandon – what made him successful last season – with any kind of regularity. The problem here is that Cole is relatively one dimensional, in that if he isn’t scoring, he isn’t bringing much to the table (at least on-ice). If the team wasn’t performing well and getting contributions from others, there would be a whole lot more heat on Cole’s shoulders, but as his teammates have picked up the slack, he gets the benefit of the doubt that he’ll come around in time to help a playoff push. For now.

After leading the team out of the gates, Andrei Markov‘s play has cooled off considerably, having his first pointless four-game segment and with just two assists over his past 10 outings. He is the only Hab defenseman with a negative +/- (-1), and played a season-low 20:52 against the Rangers, likely a good move by the coach in the second half of a back-to-back. There isn’t tremendous concern over Markov’s recent performances as it’s doubtful the tanks are empty for the remainder of the season, but it seems as good a time as any to let P.K. Subban off his very short leash, and hand over some of Markov’s workload to the younger d-man.

 

The Road Ahead

The Canadiens have now measured themselves at least once against every team in the East except for the New York Islanders – their next opponents – and the Pittsburgh Penguins. With an 11-4-1 record, it’s easy to conclude that the tests have been passed thus far, but it could be argued the early schedule has greatly favoured the team. It will continue to do so over the next four games, with no back-to-back on the horizon and limited travel (two games in Montreal, one in Ottawa, and hopefully vengeance for the 6-0 loss with a game in Toronto). It is critical for the team to continue to bank the points now, since eventually, the fact that 10 of the Habs’ first sixteen games have been at home will catch up to them. The second half of the season will see the team spending far more time in planes, buses, and hotel rooms.

What this also means is that the club will be less effective in its ability to shelter rookies like Galchenyuk and Gallagher – important contributors to the team’s success thus far – from tough minutes and matchups without the last change. The flip side to the challenge down the stretch is that the early home games have helped Michel Therrien break the youngsters in at the NHL level in a far more controlled environment, hoping that once the time comes to remove the security blanket, they will be well prepared with the tools and knowledge to handle the more difficult load.

 

Three Stars – Fourth Twelfth

1. Alex Galchenyuk

2. Carey Price & Peter Budaj

3. Max Pacioretty

 

Three Stars – Standings through 4/12 segments
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)

1. Tomas Plekanec – 5
2. Alex Galchenyuk – 4
3. Andrei Markov – 3

3. P.K. Subban – 3
5. Carey Price – 2
5. Peter Budaj – 2
5. Brian Gionta – 2
5. Rene Bourque – 2
9. Lars Eller – 1
9. Raphael Diaz – 1
9. Max Pacioretty – 1

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